Do I feel particularly generous towards Across the Universe because I just watched Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band a few days ago? Unquestionably.

But that's not to say that there isn't a lot here to love. After all, it is third film by the hallucinatory genius Julie Taymor, whose extraordinary Titus proved that no Shakespearean play is so bad that it can't be fixed by setting it in a post-punk Nazi Rome, and whose Frida, while not remotely so visionary, was still a gorgeously acted chunk of Technicolor candy nestled in an above-average biopic. Across the Universe lies comfortably between those two projects both in terms of its surreal imagery and in terms of how much I personally felt like the film had exploded my delicate little head.

That said, it's an open question how much of Taymor's scheme for the movie made it out intact; as has been widely publicised, Revolution Studios executive Joe Roth attempted to take some 60 minutes of footage from the director's 2.5 hour cut, and the 131 minute version we've been given is a grudging bastard compromise between the two. It's very hard to review a movie that I haven't seen, so I'm going to try to resist the urge to constantly assume that every last flaw in the film would have been answered by that extra 20 minutes, but there is an unshakable feeling that some parts of the film - mostly those that deal with the development of theme - are a wee bit hollowed-out.

Specifically, I'm not certain that the film as it stands has any compelling motivation behind its central gimmick, which is of course an all-Beatles cover soundtrack. Sgt. Pepper had a motive all right, and that was "People love the Beatles, and people love the Bee Gees/Frampton! It's a perpetual money machine!" But in Across the Universe, a film of pronounced politico-cultural commentary, there is no clear reason for the soundtrack, nor for the male lead's roots in Liverpool. Obviously, the reason is to do with the strange and undeniable influence that the rock music of England, particularly Liverpool, had on the youth culture of America, leading to the rise of home-grown classic rock* and the concomitant rise of the peace movement. History demonstrates that the Beatles, more than any other group of the era, embodied pop culture in its totality, from playfully mindless bubblegum to heavy experimentation and political engagement. History demonstrates that. Across the Universe, I don't think, demonstrates that.

That's an awful lot of energy spent complaining about a film that I pretty much adored. Not that there aren't flaws. But in the grand scheme of things they're not so important as the many things that work very well. Which, in the case of a Beatles musical, largely means the Beatles songs, just about every single one of which is treated with great respect and used to great effect. It's tempting (and completely unfair) to compare the soundtrack here to Sgt. Pepper, and observe that while that film had a primarily diagrammatic approach to the music - slap the song on and make it fit however possible - that ended in places like "Carry That Weight" as a funeral dirge, all while using orchestrations as distractingly close as possible to the original recordings, in Across the Universe, the songs are used to fill out and characterise the story, and their spiritual core is often left intact. Occasionally, Taymor and company even achieve something revelatory, particularly in the case of "I Wanna Hold Your Hand," transformed here from a rave-up to a genuinely heartbreaking ballad. More often, it's just a really fine performance (one leaps to mind: Joe Cocker - yes, that one - covering "Come Together" and doing it brilliantly) or a curious new orchestration that brings something fresh to the song without damaging it. The filmmakers have enough faith in the music to push it a bit, and see what new can be brought out of it. Usually, they are successful.

And then, there's the staging of those songs. I would like to propose that the theatrically-trained Taymor has (paradoxically?) one of the best minds in modern filmmaking for the things that make movies different from other art forms, and she puts that mind to work in numbers that call to mind Busby Berkeley or Gene Kelly, not because of any particular technique, but because her stagings essentially could not exist anywhere but on film. Really, praise should go to three people: Taymor, clearly, but also choreographer Daniel Ezralow (whose CV, with its Earth Girls Are Easys and its Red Shoe Diaries 17s, does not suggest this project) and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (whose CV, with its Amélies, does). The dance numbers in this film do something that is so completely basic, you wouldn't expect it to be so rare: they actively incorporate the camera, i.e. the audience, into the choreography. And they do this typically while playing around with extraordinary lighting schemes ("I've Just Seen a Face," perhaps the film's highlight) or with extraordinary Taymor-esque visual mindfuckery ("Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite!"), or both ("I Want You").

In between songs, the plot unwinds in an unsurprising way: boy meets girl, girl gets into politics, boy goes back to Liverpool, the entire population of Liverpool and New York sing "Hey Jude" to encourage boy to get back with girl. For the boy is Jude (Jim Sturgess), and the girl is Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood); the supporting players include Max (Joe Anderson), Sadie (Dana Fuchs), Prudence (T.V. Carpio) and JoJo (Martin Luther McCoy). Stunningly, the film fails to dub anyone Strawberry Fields, perhaps because this film's writers, unlike Sgt. Pepper's, are aware that isn't a real name. Actually stunningly, the songs for which Lucy, Max, Sadie and JoJo were named never appear in the film ("Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" puts in a cameo during the credits), making this even more unlike the torturous earlier film, although it does bring up one of the particularly irksome elements of this film: the in-jokes. I've no desire to list them, but they are many; they are found in both dialogue and image; and the big one at the end of the film (concert atop a fruit-named building) is obnoxiously on-the-nose and frankly stupid.

Anyway, the plot is ephemeral, but the actors are all charming enough to keep us from caring. Like Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge (a film which is otherwise strikingly dissimilar), the absolute simplicity of the story is specifically designed to encourage appreciation of the director's visual flair and the sheer joy of the music. And such visual flair it is; and such joyful music. That's the important part to take away, I think. This film does not exploit the Beatles music, perhaps the finest canon in pop history; it is a celebration, and its experiments in changing the face of the music just prove how immutable those songs are. Which is of course the point: this is a guileless film made with passion and energy, above all things a labor of love for the material and the obvious culmination of a lifetime spent considering these songs and their deeply felt humanity.

All you need is love. Simple and inaccurate, but not therefore untrue.

9/10